278 – Identifying and Interacting with Minor Victims of Human Trafficking, with Dr. Jodi Quas

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Dr. Jodi Quas to discuss new research on forensic interviews for minor victims of human trafficking. They review what the research is saying, strategies to work with minors, and how this research is being disseminated for implementation.

Dr. Jodi Quas

Jodi Quas, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her work is recognized across the globe for advancing knowledge of children’s eyewitness capabilities, abuse disclosure, and of the consequences of legal involvement on child victims, witnesses, and defendants. She has received numerous awards for her work and student training. She is dedicated to pursuing rigorous science on crucial topics relevant to identifying and intervening on behalf of victimized children, and to disseminating findings to law enforcement, legal and medical professionals, educators, and social service professionals in the U.S. and abroad. Most recently, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center, she has been focused on improving legal interventions for adolescent victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation.

Key Points

  • The anti-human trafficking research community has been developing tools and forensic interview approaches for child victims of human trafficking.
  • During investigations, it is important to give adolescents control by pausing and listening to them.
  • Nationwide surveys with law enforcement, forensic interviewers, school psychologists, health care providers, et-cetera have assisted to understand what approaches are currently being used during investigations to know what changes are needed.
  • Rapport building and trust in the beginning is crucial with adolescent victims.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 278, Identifying and Interacting with Minor Victims of Human Trafficking, with Dr. Jodi Quas.

Production Credits [00:00:13] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:33] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:39] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:41] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, we’ve had so many conversations over the years of thinking about children and the unfortunate connection with trafficking and there’s so many things for us to learn and I’m thrilled today to be able to welcome back a guest. Absolutely an expert in so many of these areas and it’s going to help us to really think about identification and interacting with victims. I’m so pleased to welcome back to the show, Jodi Quas. She is professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. Her work is recognized across the globe for advancing knowledge of children’s eyewitness capabilities, abuse disclosure, and of the consequences of legal involvement on child victims, witnesses, and defendants. She has received numerous awards for her work and student training. She’s dedicated to pursuing rigorous science on crucial topics relevant to identifying and intervening on behalf of victimized children and disseminating findings to law enforcement, legal, and medical professionals, educators and social service professionals in the U.S. and abroad. Most recently, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center, she has been focused on improving legal interventions for adolescent victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. Jodi, what a pleasure to have you back on the show. Thanks for being with us again.

Jodi [00:02:08] Oh, thank you so much for the invitation. It’s great to be here.

Sandie [00:02:12] So Jodi, I’m always a little bit in awe when I look at Research Gate or someplace else where all of your work is hosted online. People can go on and read amazing articles that you’ve written that really inform our understanding from an evidence-based perspective. And so I’m really excited about our conversation today as I want to find out what you’ve been up to lately and especially some new tools.

Jodi [00:02:49] Absolutely. So what we’ve been really thinking very deeply about in studying for the past several years concerns interviewing and identifying victims who are adolescent aged. Over the past several decades, we’ve–we being science and practice–have really done a great job developing tools and questioning approaches to elicit accurate disclosures from children. And yet, adolescence is also a really important time period. Adolescents are actually the second most likely age group to be victims of violent crime. And when you think about a crime like commercial exploitation, what you then see is you see that most victims begin exploitation and are also first identified by the legal system when they’re adolescent age. So we really pivoted several years ago to begin to really try to test methods of questioning adolescent victims, both victims of crime in general, most often exposure to different forms of violence, but also commercial exploitation specifically.

Sandie [00:04:02] So when you’re thinking about this, I know when I first met you, you were just so informed and I’ve learned so much about talking to kids who had been victims of child sexual abuse. And as we entered into this decade, really, of focusing on children and adolescents who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation, this is a different approach. So what are some of the challenges to investigating that kind of intervention?

Jodi [00:04:45] We kind of think of the challenges in two domains. One is just the challenge of adolescence. Anyone who has raised an adolescent or who works with adolescents knows that they, you know, you can’t treat them like children. They want to be autonomous. They want to have some responsibility. They they want to feel in control and as sort of a valued contributor in a way that children don’t. So one of the challenges when you question adolescents is just recognizing and sort of supporting and validating those normative developmental trends. And so you can’t tell them what to do. You really need to make sure that they understand that they have some control in the interview process.

Sandie [00:05:32] How do you do that? How do you make them feel like they have control?

Jodi [00:05:36] One of the strategies is really, and this sounds the sounds so simple, is to let them guide the conversation. And so we always tell people pause, pause and listen. And that’s not a strategy specific to the exploited adolescents. That’s all adolescence. If you’d like to get them to talk to you more, let them guide the conversation and pause, listen to what they say and ask them about those topics. So that’s really what we’ve it’s a simple strategy. There are lots of other ones that we’ve been testing in kind of in different types of experiments. But one of the ways is just give them a little bit of control because developmentally that’s what they want.

Sandie [00:06:19] Okay. So when you’re actually looking at disclosure because in an investigation that’s going to result in an actual criminal charge, we’re looking for testimony, right?

Jodi [00:06:38] Yes. Yes.

Sandie [00:06:40] So what changes there?

Jodi [00:06:43] Well, that brings to the second point where when you’re interviewing a suspected minor victim of exploitation or trafficking is what you really want to do is you want to your goal, at least your goal as an investigator, is to obtain some information that’s relevant to that investigation that can help you pinpoint whether the actual victimization is occurring, whether there is a perpetrator or a trafficker controlling the victims, or perhaps whether the victim’s engaged in some type of exploitation, such as survival sex, just to survive on the street. And so what we’ve been really kind of trying to talk to with our investigators is, number one, find out what they do because we can’t recommend anything until we know what they’re doing and what they think.

Sandie [00:07:31] So let’s talk about for a second who they are. So who are they?

Jodi [00:07:37] So we’ve been talking to law enforcement, forensic interviewers at both the kind of local kind of within different counties, but also even at the federal level. And so we’ve been doing some surveys nationwide of these different groups of professionals and finding out how do you question suspected victims of trafficking? What do you think works? And then we can come in and we can say, well, based on our research, here’s what also might work or might complement what you’re already doing.

Sandie [00:08:10] And some of these folks were health care providers and even school psychologists. So it’s a pretty robust community.

Jodi [00:08:21] Yes. Yes. One of the really unique kind of characteristics of minor trafficking victims is that unlike other forms of sexual abuse where victims own disclosures oftentimes lead to an investigation, trafficking victims tend to be identified only by others, so they’re not particularly forthcoming. So school psychologist and school counselors might be a really valuable set of professionals who encounter these victims potentially on a semi-regular basis. In addition, turning to health care, there are surveys that suggest that about 80-90% of victims, while being trafficked, encounter some type of medical or health care professionals, be it a first responder like an EMT or EMS, emergency medical service, like someone in an ambulance or firefighters or perhaps at a community health clinic or even in an emergency department. And so those professionals are really in a unique position to be able to identify victims, but only if they know how to ask questions, only if they really understand adolescent development needs, only if they really understand the kind of potential invasiveness of trafficking victims and the difficulties they have trusting authorities.

Sandie [00:09:46] So I’ve talked to you know, I’m a pediatric nurse in my background and so I’ve talked to people who feel like they’ve done due diligence. They are that first responder and they said, well, I asked, are you being sex trafficked? And it was like and they said, no. It’s like, well, of course they said no. And you and I have talked about this in the past. And one word you used that just lit up all the nodes in my brain, this sassiness and how they respond. Can you explain that from a developmental perspective?

Jodi [00:10:28] You know, you can explain it from both a developmental perspective, their adolescence, but also a kind of trauma history perspective. And these are youth who many of whom who have been immersed in different systems. They might have been in the foster care system. They might have been in the delinquency courts. They might have had multiple run ins with law enforcement. These victims don’t discriminate among different professionals. To them, social services, law enforcement, judges, they’re all a part of a system that has not responded to their needs. And so why would they trust yet another professional asking them a question? They may not see it as there any long term value. They may or may not recognize that they’re being victimized. They may see it as they have some needs and these needs are being met with this person helping this particular trafficker. And so one of the crucial kind of ways that professionals need to approach these victims is by asking general questions. Tell me about what you’re doing. Tell me about your needs. Tell me about how you’ve been covering these needs rather than just the straightforward yes or no question, are you trafficked?

Sandie [00:11:51] Okay. So this is really different than sexual abuse and the expectations because, you know, I’ve talked to SANE nurses and the sexual abuse nurse examiner thinking about those kinds of screening tools and surveys that they do. How can we begin to shift that to accommodate this new understanding?

Jodi [00:12:21] You know I think that’s a really important but also difficult question to answer. But I do think there needs to be a shift because as I mentioned, most sex abuse cases are identified because victims disclose to someone, victims tell someone. And one of the number one kind of predictors of maintaining a disclosure of talking in a forensic interview is prior disclosure. And so when you look at sex abuse victims, they sort of are much more likely to be cooperative because they’ve already told and trafficking victims aren’t; they didn’t necessarily disclose. In some ways, they might be more similar to domestic violence victims who have sort of experienced these kind of repeated assaults, but don’t either feel like they have no way out or they’re afraid to tell because of all the other consequences that may occur. And so we need to really think about what measures might need to be in place to sort of provide victims with really a safe space before expecting them to tell.

Sandie [00:13:29] Wow. That seems to me because you’ve been talking about trust here in this, that that’s going to take longer than a 15 minute debrief when they’re brought in.

Jodi [00:13:41] Mm hmm. Absolutely. I think that’s also a real challenge for law enforcement. And the forensic kind of interviewing side is that it may just be that it’s going to take longer for these victims to tell. And so it may, we may have to even shift sort of our expectations that may be a first interview isn’t about the legal intervention. Maybe a first interview was about establishing a relationship, making sure victims feel safe, and then kind of gathering a small amount of information, but making sure that there’s that build up of trust so that once the victim feels safe, the victim can disclose.

Sandie [00:14:25] Can you give us a little insight on some interaction recommendations?

Jodi [00:14:34] You know, I can. So, number one, one of the things that even with adolescent age trafficking victims, even if they are sassy or evasive, one of the things that we are recommending is that rapport building at the beginning in an honest way is really crucial. And so you can think of rapport building as, you know, establishing some type of common ground, explaining the purpose.

Sandie [00:15:05] I’ve never heard anybody say in an honest way about that. Do you feel like we kind of have maybe, we I’m saying but those of us in this community, have our patterns that might be designed to get the response, so maybe a little manipulative? Or what what prompts the honest?

Jodi [00:15:27] I guess one of the things that prompts the honesty and this is a it’s an interesting thing to say, but when you encounter a potential victims, you can’t make promises that you can’t keep. So coming from the child witness field, interviewers are actually very good about not promising, saying you won’t ever have to see him again or everything will be okay. You can’t promise that because you don’t know. And I think the same thing with adolescent victims, particularly those who have been in this trafficking world and who have really seen an incredible array of really challenging, incredibly hard events. And they’ve been exposed to such significant trauma histories. You can’t tell them everything will be okay and we’re going to protect you and he’ll never be around again or he’s going to jail. And so you need to I think you need to approach it with an honest way and explain to the victims exactly what’s going on.

Sandie [00:16:28] You know, I think they’re going to trust you more because they’ve, especially so many that have already been air quotes “in the system,” they have expectations. They know what we’re going to ask and they’re prepared to avoid and circumvent any of our goals if it doesn’t feel like it supports their goals.

Jodi [00:16:56] Absolutely. And oftentimes, their goals are very proximal or they’re very kind of, you know, just immediate. Their goals might be immediate shelter, immediate food or other kind of, you know, maybe clothing. Maybe it’s to get their hair done, their nails done. And so they’re not potentially thinking about their needs over the next five, ten years. They’re really thinking about their immediate needs. And those needs are going to take precedent over an interviewer’s need to get information.

Sandie [00:17:26] So, how do you then move into encouraging disclosures? Because we need those.

Jodi [00:17:35] You know, we do. Actually, it’s interesting. We want disclosures and in child sex abuse disclosures are absolutely crucial because there’s oftentimes no other external evidence of abuse. But again, as you said earlier, trafficking is really a different beast. We kind of what we’re trying to do is to really get interviewers and law enforcement maybe to think a little differently about the type of information they need. Because maybe, and this is kind of a maybe because this is where evidence-based kind of data collection becomes crucial is, maybe disclosures aren’t as important in cases where there’s other forms of evidence. And so in trafficking and commercial exploitation, there might be posts to online videos, there might be text messages back and forth. And so instead of focusing exclusively on a victim’s disclosure per se, it may also be valuable to obtain some of information about these other potential sources of evidence.

Sandie [00:18:41] So give me some examples.

Jodi [00:18:44] So, for example, what we might not need is we might not need a victim to disclose whether or not the trafficker is the one in charge. We might not need her, I’m going to use her even though, you know, all genders can can be exploited. We might not need details on her experiences of control by a trafficker, because what we might be able to get is we might be able to get the Web postings, possibly from Facebook or from some other source where he is controlling the Facebook, he’s controlling the prices, he’s controlling what goes onto the Web. So if you could get access to the Facebook posts, you may not need as much detail from the victim.

Sandie [00:19:28] Okay. That’s very helpful. It kind of reminds me of a case many years ago when I was part of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force and one of the corroborating evidence points were the candy wrappers in her pocket when someone asked when was the last time you ate? And they were from a specific hotel. So that contributed to building the case.

Jodi [00:19:56] Yes. And that’s a great example. You could ask victims tell me about the hotel, tell me about when you were there. And you’re not necessarily asking about sexual activity. You’re not asking about control. What you’re doing is you’re establishing a timeline and you’re establishing this control of food indirectly, which puts less pressure on the victims to disclose. And so that may also help kind of build that relationship because there’s not the kind of the more direct of questioning specifically about the crime.

Sandie [00:20:29] Okay. So then when you’re working with people in these roles and your specialty is forensic interviewing and it’s not high pressure, how do you begin to help the professionals adapt to their expectations for the long haul instead of short sighted expectations?

Jodi [00:20:58] Well, you know, learning about best practices is really different than getting people to implement best practices.

Sandie [00:21:05] Okay, okay.

Jodi [00:21:08] You know, and I think we’re with the help of I think really kind of generous and helpful colleagues and, you know, from law enforcement, social services both here in Orange County, but also abroad in other counties and states, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of really beginning to narrow down what we think are going to be the most effective ways of questioning victims. They might not always work, but we know that if they might, you know, that these are looking like the best. What we’re now really focused on trying to do is well how do we take that and package that in a way that will get us to begin to train different groups of professionals to actually use this? And that’s a trickier question. We are working with the Criminal and Investigative Network Analysis Group, which is also called CINA. It’s a center actually at George Mason University funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and they’re working with us to develop fact sheets to try to get information just even in brief formats out to professionals, particularly the professionals who encounter and have to kind of collect this information initially from victims. So we’re working with them to get a fact sheet out. We do, you know, I do podcasts like this. And what we’re trying to do now is to really talk to some of the individuals who are doing some of the law enforcement training, who are doing some of the forensic interviewing training as to try to get them to begin to practice and think about these different strategies.

Sandie [00:22:46] Okay. So that brings up a really interesting question because there are a number of nonprofits that offer training to law enforcement. And I’m curious how there might be a way for integrating more of the identifying and interacting recommendations for them. Will they be able to access those fact sheets?

Jodi [00:23:19] So number one, absolutely. The idea of these fact shetts is certainly not to make them exclusive. And I think you’re and my goals are always the same. It’s let’s get information out there to as many people as possible: professionals, the public, policymakers. And so we always want to make our information as widely accessible as possible. And so that’s sort of one I think one thing is just you make everything accessible because all of our goals are ultimately the same. It’s we want to intervene, protect, and possibly even prevent victimization from occurring. Second, though, what I do sometimes struggle with is when you have so many people doing different trainings and where I really want to make sure is I want to make sure all the different organizations doing the trainings are actually doing the trainings from an evidence-based perspective. This has been an ongoing challenge in the child witness field where you have sometimes you have nonprofits or private organizations doing forensic interviewing training, but the training is not based on best practices. And so I think it’s great when nonprofits and even for profit organizations are doing the training. I just always want to make sure that their training and best practices.

Sandie [00:24:40] So what would your recommendation be to a nonprofit leader that’s doing law enforcement training? Where would they start to beef up their best practice approach, evidence-based approach?

Jodi [00:24:57] You know, what I would say to all nonprofits is I would say partner with professors at universities. And it’s not that all the professors that are doing exactly the work, but if you formed these partnerships and I’ve been a huge advocate, it’s really in these partnerships that, number one, you can be checking to make sure your the information you’re providing is best practice. But there’s really another advantage. And what you can do is you can be educating kind of the professors in the universities, the ones doing the research, the ones kind of collecting the data. You can actually inform their work in really enormously beneficial ways because oftentimes the scientists are doing the work, but they don’t really have a good understanding of what’s happening on a day to day basis in the field. And so I’m a huge fan of those partnerships. You know, this cross communication, and I think that’s really the key to successful both collection of information, but also dissemination or kind of how you getting that information out.

Sandie [00:26:00] You’re singing my song now, collaboration. I love that teachers and health care professionals need to be at this table. I have one more group, though, that I think we are sometimes overlooking because we’re so professional, and that might be parents and caregivers. It might be a grandparent or an aunt and uncle. How can we make this easy to access for parents that need to learn how to communicate and connect with a very reluctant and to use your description, sassy adolescent.

Jodi [00:26:48] Boy, that’s the million dollar question. And that’s a tougher one. But I think we have to keep trying in different ways. We also have to meet parents where they’re at. You know, back in my early days as a scientist, I always thought, oh, you know, you meet people half way. They give a little, you give a little. But I think now that I’m older and I’m a parent, I think you really need to meet parents where they’re at. So if parents are struggling to get by, just barely getting through a couple of papers from their child’s school, I think you just put a little bit of information in that. If parents are on Tik-Tok or they’re trying to kind of scan through social media, you get to parents like that and you give them small amounts of information, you give them tools, you give them cues to look for risk, not necessarily trafficking, because I think that’s probably an overwhelming idea to throw out there. But I think risk is risk. And if you can identify vulnerabilities in youth, you can begin to build on parents kind of knowledge to recognize different types of vulnerabilities. But I think you really have to meet parents where they’re at.

Sandie [00:27:58] I love that, a little bit at a time. That’s really wise. Okay. For our listeners, how were they going to be able to access fact sheets?

Jodi [00:28:10] So the fact sheet, what we’re hoping to do is, is we’re hoping to have that fact sheet up. I do have a lab website. If you go to Jody Quas at UC Irvine, there’s a link to my lab’s website, which is the ACEs Lab. It’s the Adolescent and Childhood Experiences Lab. We have links to different forensic interviewing protocols, different studies that we’re doing. If you want to get involved, we have links to some of the other materials that have been generated, not even by me, but just by different leaders in the field. Over time, the fact sheet will also be up on our website, but we’re also hoping that it’ll be up on the George Mason University CINA website, which is C-I-N-A. And so they have to because it’s funded by them and via Homeland Security, they all have to approve it, but hopefully it’ll be on all of these websites. Our contact information is on there and that people can always reach out and I can send them information directly as well.

Sandie [00:29:11] Jodi, we will put all these links up in our show notes so people can access them. You are a reservoir of resources and I especially want to encourage nonprofits that depend on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast to stay up to date, to spend a little extra time investigating your resources because our kids are depending on it. Thank you so much for coming back. And, you know, of course, that we’ll have to have another conversation.

Jodi [00:29:45] Oh, absolutely. And thank you for inviting me. And by all means to you, to Dave and everyone, feel free to reach out. I am always happy to be a resource or to connect you with others who might be appropriate resources. So please do invite me back and please always keep me in mind if I can help.

Sandie [00:30:05] Thank you, Jodi.

Dave [00:30:07] Thank you both for this conversation. We’re inviting you to take the first step now. Go online and download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. Sandie will guide you through five critical things that she’s identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to it by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org and we as a podcast are building and expanding our community of advocates as well. And there’s an opportunity for you to become a patron of the show. You can get access to exclusive content and join a community of advocates who are working to end human trafficking. Just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org and you’ll see a link for Patreon and you’ll get access to more content such as bonus questions and segments, we’re about to record one with Jodi here in just a moment. Also, exclusive resources and toolkits. It’s a simple and affordable membership. $5 a month gives you access to a number of benefits. Certainly you can give more if you’d like. But go over to endinghumantrafficking.org for more. And if you’re already a patron, thank you so much for your support. We’re just excited to bring so much to you over this next year and to continue to support you through the work here at the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University. And we will be back with our next conversation in two weeks. Thanks as always.

Sandie [00:31:29] Bye, Dave.

Dave [00:31:31] Take care, everyone.

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